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For one veteran in Reno, a chance to see the president. But he’s seen enough in a divided country

Charles Cadwallader, a 73-year-old veteran, hasn’t voted for a president in decades and was disinclined to see President Trump at the American Legion convention in Reno.
(David Montero / Los Angeles Times)

Charles Cadwallader didn’t vote for Trump. He hasn’t cast a ballot for a presidential candidate, he said, since voting for Bill Clinton in 1992. When Newt Gingrich and the Republicans engaged in showdowns with Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he checked out. He’d had enough.

Political parties are poison to him. But as the country is roiling through an identity crisis and is splitting apart, he said the problem is not politics. The problem is so many things — shifting social norms, culture, customs, tradition and a work ethic he feels has long gone by the wayside.

He blames parents for making kids soft, turning them into entitled adults who don’t want to work hard for a living. (“You can’t lay a hand on a kid. I’m not talking about wire brush on skin or something, but giving a spanking. My parents did it to me and I’m grateful for it.”)

Cadwallader had come to Reno from West Virginia to attend the American Legion convention and now had a chance to hear President Trump in person. He sat near an ashtray filled with cigarette butts outside the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.

The 73-year-old veteran didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry, and appeared to be leaning against heading into the convention hall.

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“I watched him on TV last night in Phoenix,” Cadwallader said. “Don’t really need to hear it again.”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of Edgefield 100s and lighted up. He’d been smoking since he was a teenager — starting on Winstons and burning through other brands as his tastes changed over the years. By the time he was 18 and had joined the Army National Guard, he was a heavy smoker. He said he wanted to go to Vietnam but never got deployed. He left after nine years’ active duty.

Now he sees a country with so many problems. He blames the media for not reporting the truth — though he admitted he’s not even sure what that is anymore. He blames politicians for hastening the demise of the manufacturing economy.

Cadwallader said he didn’t know whether Trump had the answers, either.

“I think he’s trying,” Cadwallader said.

His wife, Lisa Cadwallader, came up to him and he stood to give her a hug. They’ve been married for 36 years. She said they met while she was working at a restaurant in West Virginia.

“He came in as a customer — ”

“— a drunken customer.”

“He kind of grew on me.”

He lighted up another cigarette. She had hers already going. She asked him whether he was going in to see Trump. No, he said. She said she was still thinking about going inside.

“I saw Obama last time,” she said. “It is the president. We respect the office.”

He saw President Obama as well when he addressed the American Legion. Cadwallader said he didn’t have much problem with Obama, but all he associates with him is Obamacare, which he opposes. For Cadwallader, that was like the recent solar eclipse — it blocked out everything else that Obama did.

Lisa Cadwallader nodded.

She said she did vote in the last election, but demurred when asked for whom. But she didn’t disagree with her husband’s view that America seemingly has slipped into a glide path of depravity and dysfunction. She didn’t watch Trump’s angry Phoenix speech or the reports of protesters and police clashing.

They both heard protesters here shouting off in the distance and shook their heads. She was silent.

“I always say it’s a free country,” he said. “But you have to pay for it.”

Cadwallader again told his wife he wasn’t going to go in and listen to Trump. He said he has mixed feelings about the president’s decision to send more troops into Afghanistan.

He serves on an honor guard and said he’s done 50 funerals in the last three years. A bum leg has kept him off that duty for a few months, but he said only one funeral was for a veteran who was older than him. He used to play the bugle but can’t anymore. “Don’t have the wind for it,” he said.

His wife kissed him and said she was going to take a walk. She decided she wasn’t going in to hear the president speak either. She headed down the sidewalk, where a few other American Legion members clustered together in smoking circles.

As a veteran, Cadwallader has done some thinking about America and its wars. Now Trump has said he’s sending new troops to Afghanistan. “I don’t know what to think about it,” he said. “Those people are trying to kill us. They don’t know what living a life is all about.”

He paused. The more he spoke, the more he seemed aligned with Trump’s positions.

He isn’t worried about nuclear war with North Korea. (“If they shoot one at Guam, we’ll shoot one back.”) He likes the idea of Trump’s promises to bring back a robust manufacturing economy. He reiterated his hatred for Obamacare — but he also said corporations that reduce workers to part-time status to avoid providing health insurance were culpable as well.

Still, he’s had enough. As Trump spoke inside, his wife returned and he stood up and leaned on his cane. He lighted another cigarette, clutching it between thin fingers with nails that almost blended into his skin. By the day’s end, he said, he’ll probably have smoked more than two packs.

The president was going to wrap up, and they didn’t want to get caught up in the crowds. Moving slowly, together, they walked through the parking lot — wisps of smoke trailing them before dissipating into the air.

david.montero@latimes.com

Twitter: @davemontero

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